Afterschool programs still looking for respect

By Chris Lowe • Guest columnist

“It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education,” said Albert Einstein. Einstein is credited with several accomplishments, some of which you may be familiar with and not know exactly what they mean to your everyday life, while others may linger totally in obscurity and yet still bear meaning on everyday life.

That is what directing an afterschool program resembles — mild familiarity or total obscurity. I am interested in how many Haywood County residents know that Canton Middle School (CMS) has an afterschool program, Kids In Action (KIA), or if they know about KIA, what bearing it has on day-to-day activities for Haywood County?


Getting started

As a renewable state grant, KIA receives $74,730 from the North Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (DJJDP). This grant flows though the Haywood County Schools Foundation. We have been at Canton Middle for six years, and each year we learn something more about helping families and students.

I remember our first Open House. It coincided with an event at CMS, and we thought it was a good way to ensure a decent turnout. We bought fresh fruit and snack trays, I even asked an eager news reporter to cover this exciting night. There are several reasons I remember that night. I was grateful to have a friend at The Smoky Mountain News who would cover an afterschool Open House. I was thankful to the state for funding our program.

Another reason I remember that night is the level of disappointment at our turnout: 12 kids, 1 reporter, zero faculty members, and zero parents. That night and the subsequent article alerted a state spending watchdog group who suggested we weren’t doing an adequate job. The state requirement for the level of funding we receive is 50 students. We had been in business for two months, and this was our first attempt at good publicity.

We did get noticed, and had a visit from the state director of the program. Upon his visit, we were found to be on the right track. We have met and exceeded the minimal requirement each year. It should be noted that we have met the requirement for additional funding; however, the rules haven’t been amended so that growing programs may request additional grant money. I know there is an expectation from the department of community buy-in, and rightly so. Now, again I turn to The Smoky Mountain News, hoping for coverage. Hopefully this go-round will net better results — not necessarily state awareness, but more importantly, community awareness.


What we do

We have participants from CMS, Bethel Middle School and mentors from Pisgah and Tuscola. We visit elementary schools for reading activities. We are happy to be involved with a new biking program at North Canton Elementary. This is a partnership with the Haywood County Health Department and the respective school. Tthis occurs in addition to our Monday through Thursday schedule, which is as follows:

• Daily tutoring if necessary (our Pisgah and Tuscola mentors are key for this component).

• Extra time with classroom teachers, either individually or through remediation programs.

• Band students most always have time to practice with Mrs. Caldwell (CMS band instructor); she has been extremely instrumental, so to speak, in promoting our program and assisting our kids with guided practice time. Our students also got to know Mr. Barkett a little better, a new seventh-grade teacher who got the students interested in yo-yoing each Monday afternoon.

• Access to computers for projects.

• Snack and family night meals.

• Wednesday Tae-kwon-do (with $30 uniform included) with Jeremy Sears at The Academy of Martial Arts. He graciously offers his regular class to our KIA students free of charge

• Recreation (gym or athletic fields when available. This is not often and usually occurs when participants are leaving for home. We are usually last on the list. CMS shares our facilities with Pisgah, Canton Youth and various traveling teams)

There is built-in socializing times at the end of the school day, it is so important for kids to have down time where there are minimally structured events. This gives kids time to “hang out” again, and this is essential. Students connect with new peers and establish friendships in our program. I would consider this component a highlight in any of our years — in an extremely volatile period for youth, positive peer relations can smooth over troubled paths.

Maybe most importantly, we offer transportation home for any student, whether they have actually participated in KIA or not. We have taken various athletes, band students, afterschool detention students, and Pisgah students home when no transportation was available to them.


The data shot

We serve all students, from A honor roll, A/B honor roll, students who are average, and students who are seemingly at the end of their rope. More than 50 percent of the student population comes from a single-parent homes, and the mother is head of household over 97 percent of the time. We have a growing Hispanic population as well. Being from a “non-traditional home” doesn’t always equate to disadvantaged.

However, we do see a need for positive adult/youth interaction and peer helpers to reduce the attention-seeking behaviors certain students engage in. Sixty-three percent of children under the age of 5 living with a single mother are below the poverty line (U.S. Census Bureau). Over the past 10 years, Haywood County has been in the top five highest counties in the state for reported number of child maltreatment cases.

Children who suffer abuse or neglect are 53 percent more likely to become juvenile delinquents, 38 percent more likely to be arrested as adults, and 38 percent more likely to become violent criminals, according to a study conducted for the National Institute of Justice. Abused and neglected children are involved in delinquency and criminal activity earlier, commit more offenses, and more often become chronic or repeat offenders.

Abused children also have lower IQs and reading ability, higher rates of unemployment or low-paying jobs, and higher rates of suicide attempts. Speaking of suicide, in Haywood County the rate is nearly twice that of the state rate. If that isn’t alarming enough, look at the trend

• 1991-95 — 31 suicides

• 1994-98 — 38 suicides    

• 1999-2003 — 63 took their own life

Additional funding is scarce. The department strongly discourages program fees being charged to families. They create barriers to program participation. If a fee is charged, there must be provisions so that any student may attend, such as a scholarship. Each year we attempt to set a program fee, this year the fee was $30 per month, and we offered scholarships. We have never denied service to any student due to economic factors. Parents balked, we dropped the fee to $15.

A summer participant really wanted to attend during the school year. When this student asked his father, the reply was no, he wasn’t going to pay. So he told the kid he couldn’t attend. All staff members were deeply disturbed, and our fee was waived; however, the problem is that there are some folks who feel as though this is charity, and that doesn’t always sit well.

We at KIA have quality staff members. Every adult has a role, a role that was designed by kids. In other words, we tailor our daily services to the needs of the kids. I assure you this strategy is difficult, for it rarely follows a lesson plan. Students follow teacher lesson plans from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. Students need relaxing, low-stress activities — this means sometimes they simply want to hang out with their friends.

I use this analogy: if you as a worker are asked to stay for overtime, how do you feel? Some would say that’s great, I need the money. Our kids don’t get paid, and in their mind they are still at school, which is like work, so the value they receive has to come from some other source. I believe that source is an adult or friends who care.


Where are we now

We recently had a stakeholders dinner, and we are also planning a Haywood County Youth Leadership Summer Camp on July 9 through Aug. 17. This is a collaborative effort for a pilot program. Collaborating partners include Mountain Projects, Smoky Mountain Center, Mountain Mediation, Haywood County Chamber of Commerce, Haywood County Cooperative Extension (the initiating agency), and Haywood County Schools. All activities will be guided and include adult supervision, but the key is student participation and decision making- this program is designed for student ownership. The dates below are guest speaker days, but the camp is Monday through Thursday from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. We are seeking 50 sixth- through eighth-grade students

• July 9 — Orientation / Implementing “House Rules”

• July 10-12 — Teambuilding

• July 17 — Resource Management

• July 19 — Setting Goals, Discussion

• July 24 — Goal Setting, Practical Applications

• July 26 — Resource Management, Financial

• July 31 — Self Guidance, Mode of Operation

• Aug. 2 — Field Trip, Environmental Understanding

• Aug. — 7 Resolving Conflict

• Aug. 9 — Making Good Decisions

• Aug. 14 — Community Connections

• Aug. 16 — Closing Ceremony, Camp Daniel Boone (CDB)

Operating and maintaining an afterschool program such as ours is challenging, but with community support we can shape the lives of our kids, which is at the heart of our mission statement: “Youth and mentor interaction in developing coping skills, learning positive behaviors that result in improved social skills, developing self confidence, and increased academic performance fostering a positive attitude toward school, family, and future.”

If you have any questions, comments, concerns, or potential resources (time to volunteer, know of students and families in need or have access to financial avenues), I assure there is a student who needs us, as a community, to help. We are the search party.

(Lowe is director of Kids In Action at Canton Middle School at 828.646.3449.)

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